Ryan Walters teacher pay
At a press conference following a roundtable discussion at Warner Public Schools on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters announced a number of new teacher pay programs. (Bennett Brinkman)

(Clarification: This article was updated at 4:57 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 to clarify that the teacher signing bonus is only available for pre-K through third grade teachers or special education teachers in any grade.)

WARNER — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters held a roundtable discussion Wednesday with community and school leaders to present a major teacher recruitment package that could give new or returning educators up to $50,000 if they make a five-year commitment to teach pre-K through third grade or any special education grade. The announcement comes among rising tensions at the State Capitol as legislators continue to haggle over a massive education funding and school choice reform package.

“What we’re here to announce today is the biggest signing bonus in the country — that teachers can make up to $50,000 through a signing bonus to come teach in the highest-need areas,” Walters said, flanked by students, teachers, administrators and a pastor in the Warner Public Schools gymnasium. “The highest-need areas are special ed and pre-K through third grade. We have seen every school across the state struggle to build these areas. We have states around us that are competing for applicants, and we want to give our districts the ability to compete for the best and brightest teachers in the state of Oklahoma and outside the state of Oklahoma.”

Walters’ program, which he said could be paid for with existing State Department of Education discretionary funds, launched today, but it would begin with educator contracts signed for the 2023-2024 school year. Certified teachers who did not teach in Oklahoma during the current school year can sign contracts with “critical shortage area” districts and receive bonuses up to $50,000.

Walters outlined the criteria for the bonuses in a press release. Each of the totals listed would only be available if an educator commits to five years in the profession:

  • Pre-K through third grade teachers or any special education teachers with less than three years of experience can receive $15,000
    • If those teachers agree to teach in a rural or high-poverty district, they could get $20,000;
  • Pre-K through third grade teachers or any special education teachers with three or more years of experience can earn $25,000
    • If those teachers agree to teach in a rural or high-poverty district, they could get $30,000;
  • Special education teachers with five or more years of experience who commit to teach in a rural or high-poverty district could get $50,000;
  • Teachers with five or more years of experience and who teach special education can receive $50,000;
  • Pre-K through third grade teachers or any special education teachers moving to Oklahoma with less than five years of experience can get $25,000;
  • Pre-K through third grade teachers or any special education teachers moving to Oklahoma with five or more years of experience can get $50,000.

Walters said thousands of Oklahomans have teaching certificates, making them prime candidates to recruit back into classrooms.

“We’ve got over 40,000 people with a teaching certificate that aren’t retirement age, and then we’ve got obviously thousands above retirement age that are out there with certificates,” he said. “We want to give them the incentive to go ‘You’ve done an exceptional job.'”

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‘I may not be able to match to meet the system’

Beyond signing bonuses, Walters announced a so-called “teacher empowerment program,” which he said will allow districts to give up to 10 percent of their teachers raises of up to $10,000, which OSDE would then match.

Asked his reaction to that program, Warner Public Schools Superintendent David Vinson said he worried that his district would not have the funds to provide the first half of the raises.

“I have a whole list of teachers that I would give extra money to right now, if I could,” Vinson said. “My concern is that — (with) any matching system — I may not be able to match to meet the system.”

Walters, who took over OSDE in January, said the agency is pursuing private funding to finance an ad campaign that would let people know about the new signing bonuses. He declined to give details on that aspect of his plan.

“There will be a campaign. We’re getting that off the ground, and you’ll see [billboards] soon,” Walters told members of the media after Wednesday’s event. “And we will absolutely (say), ‘Hey, we’re coming for you, great teachers in other states. We want you here — we’ve got great schools here. We want the best for our kids.’ And so we are going to be actively getting some of the best teachers out of other states, and you’re gonna see that shortly. I don’t want to get specific with it.”

Walters also avoided specifics regarding the source of funds for his new OSDE programs, although the agency’s press release listed American Rescue Plan Act funding, money from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and “other state level activities.”

“This is all money that we have at the agency. These are discretionary dollars that we have decided to allocate to attract teachers, so this doesn’t require any legislative oversight — or legislative approval or any type of approval from the [State Board of Education],” Walters said.

‘Problems that we’re facing are very complex’

Warner Public Schools Superintendent David Vinson poses a question to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters during a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Walters made his announcements in Warner, a 1,500-person town just north of Interstate 40 in the southern leg of Muskogee County. With 814 students enrolled in the K-12 district, Warner Public Schools displays numerous academic state championship flags on the walls of its gymnasium. During his announcement, Walters proclaimed Warner as “one of the highest performing schools in the state.”

Vinson, who acknowledged during the roundtable discussion that he disagrees with Walters’ policy priorities such as school choice, called the signing bonuses a “great start” to addressing the teacher shortage that has plagued Oklahoma and other states for years.

“What we need to understand is that the problems that we’re facing are very complex, so there’s not going to be just this one program that fixes it, but I think it’s a good start,” Vinson said. “And I think that it will attract some really high quality teachers to Oklahoma who might not have come otherwise. Or it might also attract people that are doing other types of jobs and just got out of education for this reason or that reason, and now they want back in because they see the incentive there. And we need all of those people to get back in because the shortage areas that they’re targeting with this program — special education and the early childhood — they’re pretty severe.”

Other educators in the district had mixed feelings about the plan.

“I think it’s a great idea — we need more teachers,” said Warner elementary counselor and curriculum director Charla Jackson.

But Jackson said current teachers also need a substantial raise, and she groused about the ongoing legislative negotiations in Oklahoma City.

“It’s almost a slap in the face to our teachers who are here, and they’re in the grind, and our legislators can’t come to an agreement to give them an incentive to stay,” she said.

Special education director Renee Murphy, whose area has been hit hardest by the teacher shortage, had similar feelings.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome. I was in Oklahoma City in 1990. I was there several years ago at the Capitol,” said Murphy, referencing Oklahoma’s two most recent teacher walkouts. “And then, once again, we’re kind of in the same boat. The children are Oklahoma’s greatest resource. But yet, education — we’re the only industry, if you want to call it that — that has to beg to be supported.”

Walters will be back in Oklahoma City on Thursday for a State Board of Education meeting. Among other agenda items, board members could take action on a special report regarding districts’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs.